Interview with Martha Thorne, Executive Director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize

August 23, 2010

Conditions: How is the Pritzker jury selected?

Martha Thorne: The members of the Pritzker Architecture Prize Jury are recognized professionals in their respective fields and are passionately interested in and knowledgeable about architecture. They must be able to travel and devote the time necessary to jury duties. Each juror’s tenure lasts a minimum of three years. The members are invited to join the jury by the Pritzker family. Many suggestions for possible jurors are put forth from a variety of sources. In the discussions about who should join the committee, there is always an attempt to form a balanced jury of independent thinkers who represent different points of view.

C: What are the criteria the jury uses in order to select a Pritzker winner?

MT: The criteria for selecting a laureate is very broad and has not changed in the thirty plus years of the prize. Specifically, the guiding statement is, “Pritzker Architecture Prize was established by The Hyatt Foundation in 1979 to honor annually a living architect whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision and commitment which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture.”

The beauty of that phrase is that is allows the jury to reflect and discuss what constitutes talent, vision and commitment, and to evaluate the nature of contributions made by architects to our world. So, it is evident that the prize is for built works,  but other than that, there is no mention of quantity, nationality, age of the architect, approach, style, or anything else.  Each time the jury is together, there is a discussion about the state of architecture, the major challenges facing professionals, and the goals and responsibilities of architecture. After conversations about broad issues, the jury is better able to focus the discussion on specifics.

In order to understand what the jury considered important in any given year in the history of the prize, it is helpful to read the Jury Citations. By way of examples, it is possible to see that the jury has highlighted such things as Norman Foster’s “steadfast devotion to the principles of architecture as an art form, for his contributions in defining an architecture with high technological standards”. Of Sverre Fehn, the jury said, “He has broken new ground in giving modern architectural form to elements of his native Norwegian landscape” and about Glenn Murcutt, “He uses a variety of materials…always selected with a consciousness of the amount of energy it took to produce the materials in the first place.” When comparing Zaha Hadid and Oscar Neimeyer the jury said, “they share a certain fearlessness in their work and both are unafraid of risk that comes inevitably with their respective vocabularies of bold visionary forms. Jean Nouvel was cited because he “has pushed architecture’s discourse and praxis to new limits.”

C: The Pritzker Architecture Prize is considered to be the most prestigious prize in architecture. In what way do you think this prize has influence the evolution of architecture?

MT: The Pritzker Architecture Prize is generally recognized as one of the most important international awards in the field.  I believe that among the reasons that the award is so respected is because of the quality of the independent jury and their careful deliberations, which includes visits to buildings, not just viewing photos. The track record of the award, from its beginning back in 1979, is also extremely strong. I doubt that the Pritzker Prize has influenced architecture in terms of style or form. However, the prize has indirectly influenced the evolution of architecture by bringing attention to architects and buildings and increasing the general awareness of good architecture. And directly, the Pritzker Architecture Prize may have contributed to broadening the definition of architecture. The prize stands for quality of built works wherever they may be constructed and regardless of “style”. This has led to recognizing small carefully crafted works by such architects as Peter Zumthor or Glenn Murcutt and bold, risk taking ideas, such as those of Rem Koolhaas or Herzog & DeMeuron, among others. I am particularly pleased that the prize has gone to such a diverse group of architects over the years.  

C: Do you feel that the Pritzker Prize has contributed in raising quality in architecture, and in what way?

MT: The Pritzker Architecture Prize consistently recognizes and rewards high standards of architecture. This is a clear message of the prize and therefore, it is safe to say that laureates serve as examples to students and those engaged in the practice of architecture alike.  The Pritzker Prize has also increased the discussion of architecture in the general press and in turn the general public’s awareness and appreciation of architecture. More demanding clients and a knowledgeable public may also contribute to raising quality in architecture. Of course the Pritzker Prize is not alone. Great buildings, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and many others, heighten the public’s understanding of the importance of architecture for our cities.

C: In your opinion, how would you define quality architecture?

MT: Quality in architecture comes in many forms and it should not be confused with taste, likes, styles or personal preferences.  In my own personal opinion, I believe that quality architecture is multi-faceted. It must do many things at the same time. It must always meet the needs of those who will use it through a carefully understood functional program. It must take into account its context –in the broadest sense of the word. A building must be respectful of issues of sustainability and energy concerns. It, of course, must be carefully, soundly and appropriately constructed. It must have an awareness of its place in society and culture. And finally, and perhaps the most difficult condition, a quality building resonates with those who inhabit and use it. It lifts the soul, in addition to providing shelter and comfort.

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